An update from the New Yorker:
In the early afternoon of June 27th, the writer Dennis Cooper was working on his computer, at his home in Paris, when his Gmail suddenly reloaded and logged him out of his account. When he tried to sign back in he found that he couldn’t. Instead of his inbox, a message appeared informing him that his account had been disabled. “It was so bizarre,” Cooper told me during a Skype call late last week. He immediately checked DC’s, his blog of ten years, and discovered that it, too, had been taken down. Its splash page had been replaced by yet another message, this time from Blogger, the Google-owned self-publishing platform that hosts his site:
Blog has been removed.
Baffled, Cooper clicked a link that was included in the message, only to receive yet another message stating that the suspension was due to a violation of Blogger’s terms of service. But what violation? And what could he do to get his e-mail and blog back up and running?
In his attempts to answer these questions, Cooper has submitted numerous requests for information via the channels that Google has put in place, but all of them have been ignored. He has worked with a Google employee, who attempted to launch an internal investigation on the writer’s behalf, but found herself stonewalled and unable to help. He enlisted a lawyer, who contacted the Google legal team on his behalf. According to Cooper, the company lawyer’s reply was, “I’m sure they’ll get back to him.” “I still haven’t heard anything,” Cooper told me. “I mean, not a single word.”
Cooper has long been known as a controversial writer, whose fiction has often centered upon queer male protagonists engaged in acts of sadism and self-destruction. After publishing collections of poems and short stories with smaller presses for more than a decade, he came to wider attention in 1989 with his first novel, “Closer.” The book orbits around George Miles—a fictionalized version of a high-school friend and former lover of Cooper’s, who committed suicide—and the constellation of friends and acquaintances who each, in their own way, have their way with him. A passage from “Closer” spoken by a character named David, who is—or perhaps just believes himself to be—a pop star, might also double as a knowing reflection of his author’s complex reputation:
On the bright side, this means I’m a siren. I lure children into adulthood by mouthing inanities like, “I love you,” when what I actually mean is, “You’ll die someday.” I’m totally evil. I want them to die. I want . . . I don’t mean any of this.
The novel was the first of five in what became Cooper’s celebrated George Miles cycle. The cycle, as well as his numerous other novels, plays, poems, and critical essays, has established Cooper’s reputation as one of the most influential and essential writers of his generation, even if here in the States his book sales have never equalled his status.
Cooper started DC’s (also referred to as The Weaklings) in 2006, after hackers broke his four-year-old “Dennis Cooper’s Blog.” Cooper viewed blogging as a space to continue writing and thinking apart from the pressures of producing books. Both sites became hubs for a community of international writers, artists, poets, publishers, and musicians. Cooper posted new content six days a week, written by him and by others, and each day celebrated a different cultural object or figure, be it the filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder or artists who use inflatables in their work.
DC’s “became for me a community and an inspiration,” Hedi El Kholti, an editor at the acclaimed independent press Semiotext(e) and an avid follower of the blog, told me. “The people I met there I imagined were our ideal readers. I made lifelong friends . . . I met people I ended up collaborating with.” The writers Blake Butler, Justin Taylor, Derek McCormack, and Ken Baumann; the poets Kevin Killian and Ariana Reines; and the musician Bradford Cox were some of the other community members who followed and contributed to the blog. In the course of a decade, the site became a kind of compendium of experimental culture, created and built by a motley collective. “This notion that Google can just remove someone’s artistic output with no warning and no explanation feels really sinister to me,” El Kholti said. “Surely they must know who Dennis Cooper is?”
During our conversation, Cooper hesitated to describe Google’s erasure of the site as an act of censorship, though he speculates that DC’s was most likely taken down due to content that violated the platform’s terms of service. (He has no idea why his e-mail was also deleted.) Blogger’s content-policy page lists violations including pedophilia, harassment, copyright infringement, impersonating others, and using the platform “as a way to make money on adult content.” The policy states that, depending on “the severity of the violation,” the platform will choose from a range of actions including deleting the “offending content, blog post or blog” and disabling “the author’s access to his/her Google account.”
Cooper speculates that the objectionable content on DC’s might have been the male-escort ads he finds online, edits a little, and posts for his readers. Cooper has always made sure that the splash page of DC’s warns visitors that the site contains adult content, but the majority of the content he publishes is innocuous. “If you look at what I post about,” he said, “I focus on this book, or I focus on that film. I post about artists, or the latest amusement-park rides, or miniature-golf courses. I mean, that’s what I do. Except for those escort-site posts, I don’t post anything sexual. I never even espouse political views.”
It’s bad enough that the entirety of DC’s might never be recovered, but what’s most devastating to Cooper at the moment is the loss of his just completed “GIF novel,” “Zac’s Freight Elevator,” the third in a series of works he made on the site using only GIFs found online. Thinking of the looping videos as language, he places them together, stacking them or opposing them to create a story—and, in so doing, effectively forging a new form of fiction. Cooper told me that he worked on “Zac’s Freight Elevator” for seven months. “It was going to be my last GIF novel,” he said. “And it’s by far the best one.”
Google’s failure to address Cooper’s problem makes it easy to fear the worst. When I contacted the company’s press department for a statement, my inquiry was met with a perkily unhelpful reply: “Regarding your inquiry, we’re aware of this matter and not able to comment on specific user accounts. Thanks, The Google Press Team.” I also e-mailed the same Google employee who’d tried to help Cooper, but she answered that she’d been advised by Google to refer all press requests to the press department. Clearly facing a dead end, I reached out for guidance to a friend who is a former Google employee. She guessed that the whole thing was a clerical error of sorts—the result of a policy reviewer who “saw something on the blog they interpreted as out-of-bounds from Google policy and took it down.” The disastrous consequences probably stemmed from “just a stupid mistake,” she said.
Either way, Cooper’s ordeal is a chilling reminder that those of us who use the Internet to house our creative work do so at the mercy of the platforms who host us. In its general terms of service Google states, “We believe that you own your data and preserving your access to such data is important,” and “If we discontinue a Service, where reasonably possible, we will give you reasonable advance notice and a chance to get information out of that Service.” But it also includes a sweeping disclaimer: “We don’t make any commitments about the content within the services, the specific functions of the services, or their reliability, availability, or ability to meet your needs.” Last Friday, Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of the pen American Center, released a public statement supporting Cooper’s appeal for an answer. In an e-mail to me that same day, she outlined the critical tension that exists between artists and online platforms that peddle in privatized public spaces. “Internet companies have found important ways to monetize that creative output and staying power,” she said. “Implicit in this exchange is that people like Dennis Cooper are trusting a platform as the keeper of their creative work. If that trust can be betrayed, especially summarily and without expectation, it breaches the bond.” Cooper says that if he doesn’t hear from Google soon, he’ll have no choice but to sue. He will do so with regret, knowing that a lawsuit will be a terrible drain on his time and resources. But, he said, “I can’t let it go.”